Infinite now

a new opera premiered April 18, 2017

Vlaamse Opera Ghent, Belgium 18, 20, 22 & 23 April 2017
Vlaamse Opera Antwerp, Belgium 30 April and 3, 5 & 6 May 2017
Mannheim National Theater, Germany 26, 28 & 31 May, and 7 & 18 June 2017
Philharmonie de Paris, France 14 June 2017
 
Imagine that the hall, the whole space of the hall, is the inside of a head/heart/body. The audience is immersed in the working of the head/heart/body of a person who find themselves in a difficult or hopeless situation, a person who is struggling to find their footing. The hall becomes an acoustic space where the outside is reacted upon, digested, dreamt, in an attempt to figure it out, and to survive.
 

Infinite now is an experience, a state: in the midst of a morass, the presence of an imminent disaster. What is going on, how long, when will it end — all is unclear. It is an existential state of nakedness where the ordinary sense of control and reason are stripped away. This situation is somewhat familiar, we taste it to some degree throughout life, even if the extraordinary does not happen. As the rate of distribution of information grows and as the political situations around us seem more precarious and unpredictable we all get a slight taste of this feeling of naked helplessness. However when war happens or disaster hits something basic changes, as the last remnants of security and routine are taken away. It is an extreme situation, on an existential level. But it holds also an opportunity for an exceptional encounter with the world, bringing its own perspective and long term consequences, historical and personal. In a way, every such a morass, is a blockade which stops the evolution of things and might then result in a sudden change. That change is felt in the air and its intuited presence is extremely forceful simultaneously frightening and hopeful.

The opera uses texts from two sources: a short story: Homecoming by the celebrated Chinese writer Can Xue, and the play Front (Luk Perceval) which is based on All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, and on letters of soldiers from the first world war, which were assembled and shaped into a theater piece by Luk Perceval. Both texts enact a suspension; people are unable to get out of a static situation. In Front soldiers are in the trenches, locked in fighting which does not end: they move some kilometers forward only to return back to their former position in a desperate deadly cycle. In Homecoming, a woman thought to pass through a house and continue her journey but then she gradually realizes that it is impossible to leave the house, which is on a cliff above an abyss where a quiet old man serves as an illusionary guide and gives some solace with his presence.

Homecoming with its chaotic internal and external landscape and Front with the extended war situation and the various forms of suffering it causes are both testimonies to what I would like to call the wild uncontrolled breathing of the world as it moves closer towards a state of entropy, or towards change, an inevitable change. The deep meaning here is not only historical. The slow merging of two seemingly unconnected worlds gradually creates a kind of an amalgam. This amalgam suggests a state of mind of such difficulty and helplessness, that in order to survive, one must find the will to continue and to find hope in the simplest element of existence, the breathing. As per David Grossmann, “in pain there is breath.” In that sense while the spoken and sung materials become strong and very visceral and present at the end, they also become further away more like islands in the midst of wind and breathing which slowly cover everything like sand in a sandstorm in the desert.

In this sense, the opera is about more than Homecoming or the first World war. It is about our existence now and here. How we survive, how are destined to survive and how even the smallest element of vitality commends survival and with it perhaps hope.

The piece is dedicated to my students.


Information

Composer: Chaya Czernowin
Director: Luk Perceval
Stage & Video: Phillip Bussmann
Electronics: IRCAM / Carlo Laurenzi in collaboration with Chaya Czernowin
Conductor: Titus Engel

Duration: 2½ hours
Structure: 6 Acts

Commissioned by: Vlaamse Opera Antwerp & Ghent (Belgium), Mannheim Stadttheater (Germany), and IRCAM (France)

Performances: premiere on April 18, 2017, at the Vlaamse Opera Ghent. Infinite now was presented 15 times in Antwerp, Ghent, and Mannheim between April 18 and June 21, 2017. On June 14, it was given a semi-staged performance at the Paris Philharmonie.

Forces

There are two casts for Infinite now’s two texts:

Homecoming
Three singers: Noa Frenkel (contra alto), Karen Vourc’h (soprano), David Fry (bass)

All voices form a blurred unison meta-voice. In addition to this, the recorded voice of Weiwei Xu, is used and treated as music.

Front
Six actors: Didier de Neck (Luitenant De Wit / Van Outryve), Roy Aernouts (Soldat Seghers), Gilles Wellinski (Kolonel Magots), Oana Solomon (Sister Elisabeth), Rainer Süßmilch (Paul Bäumer), Benjamin-Lew Klon (Stanislaus Katczinsky)
Three singers: Kai Rüütel (mezzo soprano), Terry Wey (countertenor), Vincenzo Neri (baritone)

All three voices combine together to create a meta-voice, singing in slow unison which changes its colors with the change of the dynamic individually for the single voices within the unified unison. This voice lifts up words or sentences from Front and creates a layer of singing or at times creates a sensitive passage between the spoken and the sung between the theater to music.

4 instrumental soloists: Nico Couck and Yaron Deutsch (amplified acoustic guitar and electric guitar); Severine Ballon and Christina Meissner (cellos)

Orchestra: large orchestra with 3 percussionists

Electronics: IRCAM, 2–3 performers

Videos

Critical Acclaim for Infinite now

Premiere of the Year
Opernwelt Jahrbuch 2017

“Czernowin’s score includes eruptions of orchestral, vocal, and electronic pandemonium that evoke with unnerving immediacy the chaos of battle and its aftermath. She has achieved, however, something more than a sombre memorial to death and destruction—a crowded genre in modern opera. Episodes of unearthly beauty hint at Remarque’s angelic presence, which seems to arise whenever man-made horror collides with nature... Infinite Now captures the terror, and the wonder, of discovering that the world you thought you knew has forever changed...

Wind howls on the soundtrack. The strings bow so hard that pitch disappears. Vocalists let out strangulated cries. Huge cluster chords accumulate. It all builds to a sonic hurricane—one of the most awesome storms in musical history.”

— Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 15, 2017 (USA)


“Fest steht: Chaya Czernowin und der belgische Theatermacher Luk Parceval sind ein Dreamteam, denn sie haben in ihrer Zusammenarbeit an der Oper Gent das gefunden, was im Musiktheater fast nie gelingt: die perfekte Balance zwischenVisuellem und Akustischem.

“Jede kleine Veränderung könnte Aufschluss darüber geben, was das hier ist, wo man ist, wie man in einer Klangsituation gelandet ist und wo – und ob – es von hier weitergeht... Es ist, als wären mit der Au ösung definierbarer Figuren und Formen das Körperliche, Emotionale und Irrationale, das in ihnen gefangen, geordnet und be- grenzt war, wie aus einem Gefängnis ausge- brochen, um sich im Raum zu o enbaren und neu zu mischen. Und jeder, der sich im Raum be ndet, wird Teil davon – ein Gefühl, so umfassend und distanzlos, dass der Applaus am Ende wie ein Fremdkörper aus einer fernen Welt wirkt.”

“Clearly, Chaya Czernowin and the Belgian theater-maker Luk Parceval are a dream team, as they have found in their collaboration at the opera Ghent, what almost never succeeds in the musical theater: the perfect balance between the visual and acoustics.

“Concrete sounds, breaking ice, wings of birds and tinkling metal glean in the music as hardly perceptible metamorphoses and mixings occurring in the electronics and orchestra. The constant shifting puts one in the state of highest attention. Any small change could reveal what it is, where you are, how you have landed in a sound situation, and where it goes from here... It is as if the physical, the emotional and the irrational which was trapped within the actors and singers were ordered and limited by the resolution of definable figures and forms. It is as if they had broken out of a prison in order to open up and re-open themselves in space. Consequently, everyone who finds himself in space becomes part of it - a feeling so comprehensive and distant that the applause at the end feels like a foreign body from a distant world.”

— Barbara Eckle, Neue Musik Zeitung (Germany)


“Ihre Musik ist so kompromisslos wie poetisch, oszilliert unablässig zwischen Aggression und Stille, sucht Haltungen, wo eigentliche keine sein können, erschüttert, wo eigentlich nicht erzählt wird.”

“Her music is as uncompromising as poetical. It oscillates unceasingly between aggression and silence, shifts postures, and exists where no one can exist,where actually, no story is told.”

Die Deutsche Bühne, May 28, 2017 (Germany)


“Deze productie van Chaya Czernowin is allesbehalve mooi en klassiek maar is een monsterlijk meesterwerk. Theater, opera en geluidskunst worden tot een wanstaltige emulsie verwerkt die je met een heerlijk beklijvend gevoel achterlaat. 'Dissonant' is volgens mij de samenvattende term voor deze voorstelling... Transcendentaal meesterwerk. Infinite Now zorgde voor een ervaring die tegen alle verwachtingen van een klassieke opera ingaat. "Ik maak geen entertainment", poneerde Czernowin resoluut. En dat was het ook niet. Het was een 150 minuten durend trancendentaal meesterwerk.”

“This production of Chaya Czernowin is anything but beautiful and classic, it is a monstrous masterpiece. Theater, opera and sound-art are processed into a nasty emulsion that leaves you with a deliciously lingering feeling. 'Dissonant' is, in my view, the summary term for this presentation... A Transcendental masterpiece, Infinite Now created an experience that meets all expectations of a classic opera. "I do not make any entertainment,” Czernowin resolutely provoked. Such entertainment was not the case either. It was a 150-minute trance language masterpiece.”

— Philipp Kocks, Tumult.fm, April 18, 2017 (Belgium)


“Dans un parcours en étapes, rythmé par le bruit d’une grille métallique se refermant à chaque nouvel acte, Czernowin nous engloutit au cœur de l’angoisse, grâce aussi au jeu très convaincant des artistes sur scène qui, entre expressions faciales et corporelles, cris, chuchotements, voix rauques ou encore brisées (comme nous le montre de manière frappante le contralto Noa Frenkel), intensifie nos émotions à la limite du bouleversement.”

“Czernowin engulfs us in the midst of anguish, a step-by-step process punctuated by the noise of a metallic grid that closes with each new act. All the more, this is amplified by the convincing play of the artists on stage, who, between facial expressions and bodily expressions, shouts, whispers, hoarse or broken voices (as the contralto Noa Frenkel strikingly shows us) intensify our emotions to the limit of the upheaval.”

— Cinzia Rota, Classicagenda, April 24, 2017 (France)


“Thank you so much for a breathtaking experience in Gent last night. Infinite Now is a true masterpiece. The soundscapes you have created are stunningly beautiful, at times deeply disturbing and always relevant for the drama. The First World War comes close, but in fact the piece – sorry to say when drums of war are pounding pretty much everywhere – feels extremely relevant today. Maybe that’s’ what the title implies? As Faulkner did put it: The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

— Petter Sundkvist, conductor, April 18, 2017 (Sweden)


“Chaya Czernowin’s new opera, Infinite Now, is a groundbreaking, flabbergasting work, a piece that somehow replaces time. I think it replaces time with weather patterns, but I'm not sure. More than once in the course of the piece, a wind sweeps the world away, and then slowly a new way of living figures out how to live in the swept-out space. I'm glad I get to hear it once more before the actual world ends, but I don't think once more will change my sense that I've just witnessed something hovering around and beyond the borders of the ungraspable.”

— Rick Burkhardt, composer, playwright, May 7, 2017 (USA)


“Die singende Stimme ist Hoffnungsträger in „Infinite Now“, Träger von Lebensmut, Kampfeswille und Gemeinschaftlichkeit, Blick auf und Bestätigung von Schönheit. Wie es in der Oper immer war. Das macht „Infinite Now“ bei aller Zumutung, die Werk und Inszenierung auf fast jeder Ebene bieten, bei allen Anstrengungen, die dem Zuschauer abverlangt werden, zu einem der wenigen Stücke, die diese vierhundert Jahre alte Kunstgattung bewusst ins 21. Jahrhundert fortschreiben.”

“As it always was in opera, the singing voice is the bearer of hope in Infinite now. It is the bearer of courage, the desire to fight and the collective community. It is the eye for, and the confirmation of, beauty. This makes "Infinite Now" one of the few pieces that, on nearly every level of music and staging, and with the very effort required of the viewer, deliberately transcends this four-hundred-year art genre and makes a place for itself in the 21st century.”

— Andreas Falentin, Concerti, May 29, 2017 (Germany)


“Man muss sich einlassen auf diese fremde musikalische Sprache, die Hörgewohnheiten negiert, Geräusche emanzipiert und immer zerbrechlich bleibt. (…) Sie ist mühevoll, herausfordernd und auch ermüdend in ihrer Langsamkeit, kann aber auch bis zur Schmerzgrenze gehen in musikalisch extremen Momenten, wenn die hohen Frequenzen zum Tinnitus werden. Dann ist es wieder so still, dass man nur noch den Atem hört – wie im Schützengraben. In diesem unbehausten Terrain kann schon ein einzelner, schlichter Ton von Altus Terry Wey berühren oder eine Gesangslinie von Noa Frenkel Sinn stiften.”

“One must go all-in with this strange musical language, which negates listening habits, emancipates sounds and remains always remains fragile. (...) It is laborious, challenging, and tiring in its slowness. It also reaches the threshold of pain, in moments where high frequencies become tinnitus. Yet is also is so quiet that you can only hear the breath - as in the trenches. In this uninhabited terrain, a single, simple tone from Altus Terry Wey or a vocal line from Noa Frenkel can touch the body.”

— Georg Rudiger, Badischen Zeitung, April 24, 2017 (Germany)


“In der Musik ist bei aller Reduktion des Tonsatzes im Detail unglaublich viel los. Das ist sehr sorgfältig gearbeitet und immer wieder faszinierend, welche Facetten da entstehen.”

“With all the reduction, the music is incredibly active. The sound is set in close detail. Everything has been carefully constructed, and it is constantly fascinating which facets emerge.”

— Frieder Reininghaus, Deutschlandradio Kultur, April 18, 2017 (Germany)

“Schon in ihrer ersten Oper, «Pnima . . . ins Innere» aus dem Jahr 2000, entblösste Czernowin offene Wunden: am Beispiel des Holocausts. Ein Grossvater vermag es nicht, den Nachgeborenen von seinen Erlebnissen zu erzählen. Das Trauma kreiert neue Traumata, die Generationen stehen sich sprachlos gegenüber, und hier knüpft «Infinite Now» an. Es ist keine Literaturoper und schon gar nicht ein Anti-Kriegs-Werk, sondern ein vielschichtiges Psychogramm vom Allmenschlichen.

“Mit «Infinite Now» hat Czernowin viel riskiert, (...) Gleichwohl zählt diese neue Oper fraglos zu den stärksten Beiträgen der vergangenen Jahre.”

“Already in her first opera in 2000, Pnima… into the interior, Czernowin exposed open wounds of the Holocaust. But it is impossible for the past generations to adequately convey the aftermath of their experiences. In Infinite now, the trauma of the past creates new, present trauma. Generations past and present are left speechless. It is not a literary body, and certainly not an anti-war work. Rather, it is a complex psychogram of the human.

“With Infinite now, Czernowin has risked a lot, (....) Nevertheless, this new opera certainly ranks among the strongest contributions of the past years.”

— Marco Frei, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, May 31, 2017 (Switzerland)


“Czernowin’s opera dwells. It inhabits its big box of time-space, all the way to its edges. It penetrates. It overwhelms.

“One passage at the end of Act IV took my breath away for sheer beauty; looking at the score the following morning I was amazed that it amounted to just two bars of guitar and voices, a fleeting vocal arabesque and perhaps ten seconds of electronics. Such is Infinite Now‘s power to shape and communicate the passage of time. Such is Czernowin’s authority as a composer. I cannot think of anyone else who could have written this opera: she is an artist at the height of her powers.”

— Tim Rutherford-Johnson, April 18, 2017


“Chaya Czernowin denkt Musik (wie Helmut Lachenmann) von der physischen Erzeugung her. Sie zielt gleichsam «ins Innere» (nichts anderes bedeutet «Pnima», der Titel ihres ersten Bühnenwerks), auf die Keimzellen des Klanglichen. Das hat sie immer getan. Mit «Infinite now» indes erreichen ihre komponierten Recherchen eine neue Dimension. Denn nie zuvor hat sie die twilight zone zwischen Singen, Sprechen, Geräusch, zwischen reinem und schmutzigem Klang mit so großem Aufgebot vermessen wie in diesem Opus für die Opera Vlaanderen: Neben Gesangssolisten fordert die Partitur ein Instrumentalquartett (Gitarre, E-Gitarre, zwei Celli), ein großes Sinfonieorchester sowie sechs Schauspieler für vier verschiedene Sprachen (Englisch, Französisch, Flämisch, Deutsch). In sechs Abschnitte (Akte) ist die Expedition durch eine akustische Landschaft unterteilt, die weder fest umrissene Figuren noch eine greifbare Geschichte kennt. Gewiss ist dort nur das Ungewisse, die Verunsicherung, eine zweifelnd fragende Suche nach dem, was war, was ist, was wird. Eine Suche, die Sinn und Sinne befreien soll für ein fühlendes Denken, das die unerträgliche Fragilität des Seins als Chance begreift, das (Hin-)Sehen und (Zu-)Hören neu zu lernen.”

Albrecht Thiemann, Opernwelt, June 2017 (Germany)


“Het is niet minder dan een meesterwerk, laat dat maar direct gezegd zijn, dat je tweeënhalf uur vastnagelt aan je stoel en vervolgens gedesoriënteerd en murw gebeukt achterlaat. En dan niet zozeer door alle ellende die je voorgeschoteld krijgt in de verhalen van de soldaten, want ellendig was het natuurlijk, maar meer doordat Czernowin en Perceval erin slagen om de geschiedenis het heden in te slepen.”

“It is nothing less than a masterpiece, a two-and-a-half-hour disorientation leaving you speechless. You are acquainted with the misery of the soldiers’ stories, not so much because it is a natural sadness, but more because Czernowin and Perceval have succeeded in dragging history into the present.”

— Ben Taffijn, Nieuwe Noten, May 1, 2017 (Belgium)


“Muzyka Czernowin - będąca dla wystawionego na próbę odporności odbiorcy swoistym eksperymentem i osobliwym doświadczeniem wewnętrznym - składa się z wielu warstw i z ogromą mocą wypełnia całą przestrzeń teatru.”

“Czernowin's music, a test-driven and peculiar internal experience for the recipient's resolve, is composed of many layers and is filled with enormous power to fill the entire space of the theater.”

— Leszek Bernat, Maestro, April 24, 2017 (Poland)


“La musique fonctionne en plusieurs couches et résonne dans l’ensemble du théâtre où Czernowin travaille avec l’espace en considèrant tous les sons comme de la musique. Son opéra est fait de silences, de chuchotements, d’instruments, du travail acousmatique sur les bruits de train, de machine à écrire ou de grenades, des paroles d’acteurs (qui sont au nombre de six) et des voix des chanteurs (six également, répartis en deux trios)... Le résultat est 2h30 d’expérience sensuelle et expressionniste où l’on ne médite pas tant sur la violence et la guerre, que sur cet entre-deux qu’est la vie vantée par le dernier acte. Nous tous, dans l’antichambre de la mort, nous tous, enfants d’Europe et des violences de la guerre, nous rentrons à la maison quand nous nous connectons dans les limbes du sous-sol de la maison de l’enfance ou quand nous retrouvons la terre meuble et humide des orages d’acier. Exigeant – voire même intransigeant- Infinite Now est un opéra très singulier qui s’expérimente plus qu’il ne se regarde et s’écoute.”

"The music works in several layers. Resonating throughout the theater, Czernowin’s space considers all sounds as music. Her opera is made of silences, whispers, instruments, acousmatic sounds of the train, typewriters, grenades, words of actors (who number six) and voices of singers (six also, divided into two trios)... The result is two-and-a-half hours of sensual and expressionistic experience where one does not meditate so much on violence and war, as on this inter-life of the life vaunted by the last act. We all, in the antechamber of death, all of us, children of Europe and the violence of war, go home when we connect in the limbo of the basement of the house of childhood or when we find the loose and damp soil of steel storms. Demanding - or even intransigent - Infinite Now is a very singular opera that experiences more than it looks and listens. "

Yaël Hirsch, TouteLaCulture.com, April 20, 2017 (France)


“Visuellement Perceval, comme Claude Régy, refuse le réalisme et privilégie le rituel des corps, le jeu abstrait des lumières et des ombres, la lente répartition des corps dans l’espace. Pas de sang, pas d’appui vidéo : rien qu’un texte dit simplement ou chanté, avec des échos sonores orchestrés et des bruits concrets évoquant, ou non, l’absurdité d’une ‘vie’ dans les tranchées. Le mouvement porte sur les mains, le corps lentement déplacé, le ‘cri’ douloureux des chanteurs, rappelant le tableau éponyme de Munch.

“Rien d’ordinaire à quoi s’accrocher, c’est un plongeon sonore et visuel dans l’enfer de la guerre. Une sorte d’absurdité abstraite où rien n’a de sens, où la musique torture, sciemment, refuse l’ornement, la grâce. Si vous restez extérieur, vous subissez une étrange cacophonie bruitée plus que musicalisée. Si vous entrez dans le laboratoire proposé, pour opérer vous-même le mélange des éprouvettes sonores, écrites et visuelles proposées et votre soirée sera intense. Mon ‘truc’ pour résister à ‘l’épreuve’ revendiquée par la musicienne : prendre beaucoup de notes et d’impressions …qui s’impriment en vous et qui vont se décanter. Comme on laisse, dans une éprouvette, les mélanges acides ou basiques laisser surgir une couleur nouvelle.”

“Visually, Perceval, like Claude Régy, refuses realism and privileges the ritual of bodies, the abstract play of lights and shadows, the slow distribution of bodies in space. No blood, no video support: nothing but a text simply said or sung, with orchestrated sound echoes and concrete noises evoking and refusing the absurdity of a 'life' in the trenches. The movement involves the hands, the slowly moved body, the painful 'cry' of the singers, recalling the eponymous picture of Munch.

“Nothing ordinary to cling to, it is a sonorous and visual plunge into the hell of the war. A kind of abstract absurdity in which nothing has meaning, in which music tortures, and knowingly refuses ornament and grace. If you stay outside, you undergo a strange cacophony that is more noise than musicalized sound. If you enter the proposed laboratory, your evening will be intense. You will operate on the mixture of the sound samples, written and visually presented. My 'trick' to resist the 'test' claimed by the musician: take many notes and impressions ... that imprint and settle in you. The acidic or basic mixtures leave a new color in your specimen. ”

— Christian Jade, Opera 21, April 24, 2017 (France)


“Le pari est certes risqué pour la compositrice, présentant au public privé de mise en scène un spectacle d’une durée de deux heures trente sans entracte. Mais l’opéra ne souffre d’aucune longueur. Situant l’auditeur an centre de l’espace scénique grâce à la spatialisation sophistiquée du son, Chaya Czernowin nous convie à une expérience d’écoute d’une puissance émotive inouïe.”

“The bet is certainly risky for the composer, presenting to the audience a show lasting two and a half hours without intermission. However, the opera does not suffer by its length. With sophisticated sound spatialization, Chaya Czernowin is the center of the stage space, inviting us to an experience of listening to an unheard-of emotional power.”

— Michèle Tosi, ResMusica, June 21, 2017 (France)